Fall reading: “Designing Your Life” and “The Nix”

I’ve done a lot of reading in the past few weeks, as one does when stuck in bed. I would have watched more TV, but Greg and I are between shows. We tried “Stranger Things,” and after the first minute, I had my hands over my eyes and was shouting at Greg to turn it off. I don’t do scary. Last night, I turned on the World Series in the sixth inning. This was, also, too scary. I watched until the bottom of the ninth, when I became convinced (as any fair-weather Cubs fan would) that I was jinxing the team. So I went to bed. Then they won. You’re welcome.

Let me tell you about these books. A while back, I saw an article in The New York Times about two Stanford professors, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, who teach a course called “Designing Your Life,” which is the most popular class on campus. The professors, who both have a design background, wrote a book that condenses what they teach in the course for a broader audience.

In “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life,” the authors encourage us to have an “emphasis toward action.” They mean that we should take concrete steps to explore an idea rather than overthinking it. I am a chronic over thinker, over researcher, over planner. Taking action can be challenging because I assume that with enough research I can find the perfect vacation, job, etc. Burnett and Evans shoot down the notion of a perfect life or a single dream job.

At the start of the book, they ask readers to do some serious thinking and then write out values when it comes to work and life. Readers are also told to keep a journal that tracks their daily activities and their level of engagement.

The most useful part of the book was their advice about seeking out opportunities. They encourage readers to find people who seem to have a dream job or work for an inspiring company and reach out to those people. Their argument is that we have to get out of our safe little ruts if we want to find opportunities. The more we explore our interests and make connections, the more likely we are to hear about a job or project that is a great fit. If you’re feeling stuck in some aspect of life, this is a quick, inspiring read.

The Nix,” by Nathan Hill was my post-surgery project. This is a book that I really wanted to read and also feared reading. At least once a year, one of these epic novels comes out and is roundly hailed by the critics, and I invest many hours to read it and feel disappointed (Looking at you, “The Goldfinch.”). “The Nix” was over 600 pages, and I’m relieved to say that it was worth it — and not just because I was stuck in bed with nothing else to do.

The start of the book felt too testosterone-driven, with a lot of talk about video games, but the story soon shifted to other characters. The premise is that a man, Samuel, who was abandoned by his mother as a boy finds her again when she is arrested for throwing a handful of pebbles at a presidential candidate. Samuel is a mediocre literature professor who committed to writing a novel 10 years before and still hasn’t written it despite a hefty advance. When his mom becomes momentarily famous, he decides that he should write about her instead, and that launches a journey of him trying to know and understand his mom.

The story jumps around in time, going back to both Samuel’s childhood and his mother’s childhood. It touches on a lot of themes that feel very relevant: the political divisions in our country, the effects of technology, and the struggles we face to understand our families. I loved how even the most despicable characters were still relatable. My only complaint was that the ending felt too tidy. I like a little mystery.

Next up, I’m going to tackle Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton.” Something tells me that this one will be good.